Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Fragility of It All

Like most Americans, I'm sure, I've been following the devastating stories about the fires in southern California all week. Many of you know that Joan and I moved to New York in 2002 from Orange County, California—which is the site now of one of the largest, and so far only partially controlled, fires that is burning. But even for those of us who haven't lived in California or who have family there (which Joan and I also do), these fires have a profound lesson to teach: how tenuous it all is, how dramatically things can change (and how quickly), how important it is to be prepared for natural disasters (at least to the greatest extent possible), and how reasonable and fitting it is to be grateful for all the good days we enjoy, days on which the forests aren't on fire and the earth isn't shaking and the sea level isn't rising (or at least not too precipitously) and there aren't any messages from any physicians on the voice mail inviting us to come in to talk about something the doc apparently doesn't feel comfortable just blurting out on the tape.

The more I consider the issue, the more interesting it becomes. Wouldn't it be more logical to be enraged with God for creating a world in which the potential for this kind of calamity exists in the first place. Why do the forests have to be combustible in the first place? And how can it be reasonable for people—decent, nice people—to wake up in the morning feeling fine, and then to have lost everything by nightfall? Surely, none of us thinks that those who lost their homes—and at least 1500 homes have been destroyed so far—were singled out by divine justice system for punishment in this particular way! Nor does any of us find cogent the corollary to that thought, that those whose homes were spared were simply those who were not deserving of punishment in this particular way. Still, the way of our faith is to be grateful for what we have, and not to allow tragedy to mar our ability to feel beholden to God for all the good in our lives. The question is...why not?

Maybe the real answer is that the whole world is fragile and brittle, mostly made of sticks and mud. And, also mostly, it burns down easily. People are the same: fragile and weak, endowed with the strength to lift barbells, but not to fight off microscopic viruses or invariably to defeat tumors so minuscule that it takes scientific instruments even to learn of their existence. Given how things truly are, then, the real question is not whether we should or shouldn't be enraged by disaster when it befalls us, or anyone, but why so many of us manage to last for as long as we do. In the end, what makes sense is to be grateful for the good in our lives, and also to be grateful, if we can, for any opportunity that brings us closer to faith...including when the specific incident that has brought us to that faith is a calamity we never would have wished for. In other words, the challenge is not to decide whether or not to be irritated by natural disasters, or enraged by them, but how to harness the emotions they inevitably bring in their wake to bring us closer to God, and to make us into finer Jewish people through the contemplation of just how fragile life is.

I am in the middle of an exceptional book, Brother One Cell, by Cullen Thomas. Thomas, when he was a young man teaching English in a Korean high school, got involved in the drug trade and, as a result, was sentenced to four years in a South Korean prison. Brother One Cell is his own account of his experiences in that place. It is harrowing in parts, but also inspiring: here is a man who had to deal with horrific things that most of us know only from our worst nightmares, yet who came out of it all able to write that he would not have trade the emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth he accomplished in that place for anything, including (if he could go back in time) for an acquittal. As many of you know, I'm usually not a great fan of books about callow youths who overcome indomitable odds to become whatever it is they eventually do become. But this book is really something exceptional, and I recommend it to you all. Here is a man who understands that the greatest of all life's tasks—successfully to grow to maturity and wisdom—is hard enough for it to be wholly rational not to turn away from any path available that can lead you there. It's easy to say something like that (it's also easy to write it)...but dramatically harder to mean it. But Thomas does mean it...and you will be truly inspired by his book.

As we contemplate the fires in California, let's try to think of it in that way: not solely glad it's happening somewhere else, and not solely sad that it's happening at all...but possessed of a renewed sense that real wisdom and real maturity are acquired in this world in just the same way all valuable things are acquired: by paying for them, often a huge price. (October 26, 2007)

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